By Rafia Zakaria
January 02, 2019
AT a recent event on women’s rights held under the auspices of an international human rights agency, speakers had sobering news. The situation of women, attendees were told, had not improved much in the past year. Women were in as hapless a position, or even worse, than they were when the last year ended, and likely the year before that.
It was, the speakers realised, a sad song to sing and so they tempered it with large servings of blame. Some pinned the dismal state of half the country’s population to primitive cultural and tribal norms, whose diktats, now trickily enforced via cellular phones, have taken lives for the crime of laughing and clapping. Others pointed to laws that exist but are not enforced as in the case of family members that are complicit in the deaths of girls accused of being errant. Then the event was over, and everyone went home; their conscience, to the extent that they brought one along, was for the moment smug and satisfied at having done their bit, having played their part in helping the women of Pakistan.
Those are the ones who attend events; most Pakistanis, women among them, do even less than the rehearsed speeches and on-demand pathos that attendees produce at such convening. Students who are subject to a class or a lecture on the subject roll their eyes, imagine their attendance as an act of endurance, the subject abstract, unable to touch their own lives. Husbands or wives or dinner-party guests do even less; the feminists among them, if there are any, are tolerated — a desultory presence, annoyances whose misgivings take away from the good old misogynistic fun that allows everyone to have a good time.
Everyone, of course, is not having a good time — and there are numbers to prove it. According to the World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranks literally next to last in the whole world when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality. The ranking uses a compendium of indicators, from the presence of laws to the enforcement of laws, of women in politics and women in the workforce, of access to healthcare and so on. And the conclusion of all of them is simply that life for the Pakistani woman is a living hell, where constant and persistent reminders underscore that they are less than men in every way.
In any other country, these sorts of results would be alarming and upsetting. In Pakistan, they are merely routine, or even less so. In the days after the ranking came out, and other year-end statistics were released regarding violence against women (yes, those rates too are going up), few seemed to care at all. No one, not even women, on whose lives and bodies cruelties like acid assaults, honour killings, bride burnings, and all the other sorts of domestic violence are being carried out.
The country’s morning shows, whose hair-twirling, smile-pasting doyennes have been so recently opinionated regarding men and their multiple wives, said nothing at all about the shameful ranking. After all, there were make-up tutorials to enact, tasty dishes to make, and judgements to be doled out regarding the abilities of other women to be appropriately submissive.
To blame the victims — and, yes, eventually every Pakistani woman, no matter the number of sons she births, no matter the wealth stored in her father’s coffers, no matter the current devotion of her husband, will eventually be a victim — is probably unfair. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a breed of men who so detest women that they think nothing of their erasure from governance, from politics, from executive leadership and generally from any and every task, job, decision, role that they would like to play.
A whole system of raising girls (the ones who are allowed to be born at all) ensures that this will not change. The Pakistani idea of a ‘good’ girl is one who happily, ever-faithfully, entrusts her life to men. To rebel against this premise, a girl and eventually a woman must deal with being labelled ‘bad’, both by others and by her own conscience. Few women want to be ‘bad’ and so all of them are, however they may pretend otherwise, deeply sad.
The unluckiest people in Pakistan are the ones who do not buy into the system of lies and submission along which every social role, every professional opportunity, is structured. They are not all women; men, the fathers of abused daughters, the brothers and sons of divorced or abandoned others, also weep in silence and secrecy at the alarming condition of half the population of Pakistan.
Women, too, cry and commiserate, but rarely in public; a woman wed to a man she hates will taunt the one who has no children, one with a big house will deliver snide asides to the one who lives in an apartment; the entire machinery of Pakistani womanhood is thus deployed in ensuring that the conquered population remains dulled and undemanding, anesthetised by morning shows and Dholki invitations, all the way into oblivion.
Articles about women’s rights written at the end of the year are the same as those written a few years, even a decade or two decades, earlier. The reality, it seems, is that other than a small segment of the population, few are possessed of the ability to apprehend the desperation of the situation. Half of Pakistan’s population is enslaved, in various ways, to the other half, and everyone, it seems, is entirely okay with that.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.